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On Democratic Socialism

“This is, like, basically our campaign’s anthem,” recently elected congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said into the camera. In an Instagram Live on November 9, “Q.U.E.E.N.” by Janelle Monae plays in the background as Ocasio-Cortez ties up her hair, preparing to finish cooking her instant mac and cheese. When an Instagram follower asked if she prefers CNN or The Young Turks (TYT), a progressive American news program, Ocasio-Cortez pulled close to her phone and whispered, “TYT,” then panned down to her completed dinner.  

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez represents a new wave of progressive Democratic leadership, a young working-class Latina providing a glimpse into the highest echelons of American government. After she won the Democratic primary for a House of Representatives seat in New York’s 14th district—beating Rep. Joe Crowley, the ten-term incumbent—she became an immediate symbol of a changing political landscape. On June 27, CNN ran an article entitled, “A 28-year-old Democratic Socialist just ousted a powerful, 10-term congressman in New York.” Crowley himself described her politics as “basically socialism wrapped in ignorance.” He had a clear message: Ocasio-Cortez’s politics are utopian and unrealistic, unfit for modern politics.

Democratic socialism is about creating a more just America. Ocasio-Cortez explained, “When we talk about the word ‘socialism,’ I think what it really means is just democratic participation in our… economic, social, and racial dignity. It is about direct representation and people actually having power and stake over their economic and social wellness, at the end of the day.”  It takes New Deal liberalism and pushes further. It is a philosophy that builds on the legacy of 1960s and ’70s counterculture movements, especially the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). And, just like the SDS, democratic socialism is a platform that has exploded in popularity among young people who have been continually let down by politicians without their best interests in mind.

Conservatives’ response to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s election has been cited as evidence that establishment politicians do not understand young Americans’ realities. Most recently, after disclosing that she could not yet afford to move into an apartment in Washington, D.C., Ocasio-Cortez’s communications director revealed that she currently has less than 7,000 dollars in savings. Despite statistics indicating that, according to MagnifyMoney, the median millennial savings is just 2,430 dollars, conservative journalists and critics have used her financial situation to claim that she is not qualified for Congress. Fox News correspondent Ed Henry, for instance, attacked Ocasio-Cortez for her personal finances, suggesting that if she had not worn high-end suits in campaign photoshoots, she could have afforded “a month’s rent in D.C.”

These attacks, though narrow in scope, are inseparable from ideology—the Republican Party has long positioned democratic socialism as contradictory to economic reasoning, a dangerous force undermining America as we know it.

Much of the backlash against democratic socialism comes from people uncomfortable with its language. “Socialism” is often regarded as a homogenous ideology, despite countries described as “socialist,” like Venezuela and Norway, having vastly different economies. On the American talk show The View, Meghan McCain remarked in June 2018, “It’s petrifying to me that [democratic socialism] is being normalized.” Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign embraced the “democratic socialist” title, relying heavily on the “democratic” modifier, as Marian Tupy wrote in The Atlantic, because “historically socialism has not, typically, come about as a result of free and fair elections. In most socialist countries… socialism was imposed at the point of a gun.”

Many political analysts have posited that Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez could be best described as social democrats, because they campaigned for increased taxation and federal spending. Even though this is also a belief held by democratic socialists, “social democrats” does not carry the same baggage of the socialist name. Social democratism and democratic socialism have many overlapping beliefs, with subtle differences in implementation. Yet, many critics don’t feel that these distinctions are relevant. At least among conservatives, government expansion will stymie American progress, regardless of its chosen name.

Political opponents do not just see candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders as dangerous because they support democratic socialism, but because so many young people support democratic socialism  as well. This has not always been true—in a 1949 Gallup poll, only 15 percent of citizens agreed that it would be best if America went “more in the direction of socialism.” According to the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School’s Fall 2018 survey, only 33 percent of likely voters indicated that they would be less likely to support a candidate that identified as a democratic socialist, with the majority either seeing the designation as positive or neutral.

Maria Svart, National Director of the Democratic Socialists of America, stated, “Adults under 40 know the system is not working and so adults under 40 are not afraid of the socialist bogeyman.” Despite many young Americans having immigrant parents who suffered through socialist or communist regimes in other countries, like post-Cultural Revolution China or the former Soviet Union, millennials’ political tendencies reflect that heritage does not outweigh systemic dysfunction within American capitalism. Sanders famously remarked, “Ninety-nine percent of all new income generated today goes to the top 1 percent. Top one-tenth of 1 percent owns as much as wealth as the bottom 90 percent. Does anybody think that that is the kind of economy this country should have? Do we think it’s moral?” As economic inequality deepens, the American reality young people face continues to diverge from past generations.

Ananya Kumar-Banerjee, who formerly worked on Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign and serves as communications director for the Yale College Democrats, similarly described millennials’ feelings of disenchantment with the status quo. “We’re a lot further away from the Cold War than our parents were. They grew up around the Cold War, they lived through the Cold War, we see movies about Russian spies and that’s about the extent of it,” she said in an interview with The Politic.

“But I think particularly because of social media and the access we have to information, it’s a lot easier [for us] to see just the number and extent of injustice in this country and I think that makes people more passionate and more determined to find answers,” Kumar-Banerjee said.

While conservatives unequivocally denounce democratic socialism, this ideology remains a response to injustice. Democratic socialism is one way Americans are responding to capitalism’s failure to provide what it promises, whether these people are college graduates entering the workforce or miners watching their jobs vanish. With many believing “economic anxiety” motivated Trump’s success, the question of how to remedy a deeply broken system is critical for progressives, going into 2020 and beyond.

With the most popular democratic socialist politicians running as Democrats, the party must confront the place democratic socialism has within its coalition. Is it simply a force meant to influence mainstream electoral politics, or does it represent a divide in the Democratic Party? While Michael Harrington, the founder of the national Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), envisioned it as a lobbying group intended to push mainstream Democrats to the left, rather than an independent political party, the political landscape has changed tremendously in the past three decades.

Studies have repeatedly shown that gaining young people’s votes is critical for winning national elections, but many of these voters see Democrats as complicit in an economic system that has failed them. These debates manifest on campus as they do nationally, and all of Yale’s left-of-center political organizations must grapple with them. Yale’s DSA, for instance, provides a window into the thinking beyond the movement through the lens of college activists. Mary Claire Whelan, a member of Yale’s chapter of the DSA, remarked to The Politic, “I think we’ve been pretty consistently let down by Democrats and the Democratic Party basically our entire lifetime. We’ve seen again and again the Democrats run centrist candidates that really are unwilling to take stances on issues that people in our generation are both affected by and see affecting their communities and their loved ones.”

It is not difficult to see this reflected in Crowley’s campaign. Sean McElwee, a progressive activist, told Business Insider, “[Crowley] voted to establish ICE. [Ocasio-Cortez] promised to abolish it and investigate its abuses. At the end of the day, voters made their choice, overwhelmingly.” The same forces that Crowley believed would ensure his election—his position as a party boss and his campaign’s financial backing— provided Ocasio-Cortez with ammunition to claim that he could not represent working-class New Yorkers. Crowley was the most powerful Democrat in Queens, yet he lived in Washington, making him vulnerable to attacks by the “girl from the Bronx.”

According to Victoria Grace Hewlett, another member of Yale’s DSA, discerning the future relationship between the Democrats and the DSA is similarly muddled. “I don’t know if I could give you one answer,” she told The Politic in an interview. “On the one hand, there are people in the DSA who are committed to reforming the Democratic Party. On the other hand, there are people who are skeptical of that and… [with] working under the neoliberal system.” Her response hints at the heart of political debate around democratic socialism—are major DSA figures using the Democratic name to bring their ideology into the mainstream, or do these candidates represent a sustainable leftward shift within the Democratic Party? And where does that leave democratic socialists who refuse to align with the Democrats? “I’m not sure,” Hewlett said. “We’ll have to see where the organizing takes us.”

At the same time, many young people still have hope in electoral politics, especially with a national government that is slowly but steadily becoming more diverse. According to Kumar-Banerjee, “I think a lot of us share common values in the Democratic Party and the question is how do we apply those values.” Coverage on electoral politics emphasizes existing divisions. On July 1, The Hill published an article entitled, “Divided Democrats are in danger,” suggesting that Ocasio-Cortez is dangerous for Democrats because “current polls indicate that Democrats with the highest chance of flipping seats in Congress are those that hold moderate and establishment values.” In spite of the media’s claims of chasms between the Democrats and the DSA, members of each still espouse ideals of equity and justice, even if people have different ideas for how that future can materialize.

In a time when political norms are often ignored, making declarations about the future of politics seems futile. Yet, despite this uncertainty, there is still promise for those who feel disenfranchised. It can be seen in grassroots organizing efforts, and the new generations of activists coming of age. But it can also be seen in Ocasio-Cortez’s Instagram Live broadcasts, in which she aims to make the government just a bit more accessible for those who feel unheard. These initiatives, though nascent, suggest that democratic socialism may be successful in getting young people more engaged in politics. As millennials consistently have the lowest voter turnout rates by generation, only one question remains: How much will these changes matter?